After Thomas Nagel*
Circling the heavy church at the end of the street,
they see a cliff-stack above a grey Atlantic,
an inherited seascape sloshing inside their skulls,
salting their nerves, their desires’ tidal pull.
Fat and imperious on rooftops, they laugh
down the chimneypots, my hearth
echoing with their uninvited call.
My father excuses himself. My tea cools
as I swallow his news.
The street heaves and yaws,
cherry blossom froths around the steps
and caught in the swell, a shopping bag pulses,
a jellyfish against the rail.
I throw my head back and call and call and call.
* Nagel’s famous philosophical paper What is it like to be a bat? is a thought experiment that explores
the impossibility of entering the conscious mind and subjective experience of another animal.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2016. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2016 was Catherine Lockerbie.
This was a new voice to me, powerful, muscular, biblical, lyrical. I couldn’t be more delighted to have found it. Poetry is the perfect vehicle for inhabiting the minds of other creatures – see Tom Pow’s cat poem ‘Full Stretch’ which is part of this online anthology – and this salty gull’s-eye view of a town is compelling indeed. There’s an enigma at the heart of the poem – what is the father’s news that seemingly seamlessly turns the poet himself into a gull?
This poem was prompted by the herring gulls that are such a ubiquitous part of Glasgow’s urban wildlife. I was taken with the fact that these birds, endangered in their natural coastal habitat, have done such a good job of making the city their home. One particular character insisted on using our chimney as a vantage point across the cityscape and its harsh cry echoed down the flue and out of the fireplace into the sitting-room. Not quite alien, but certainly uninvited. I wanted to explore what the gulls see when they circle the streets – and yet, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel attests, it is impossible to access the mind of another animal. This tension became the main conceit of the poem. But maybe it’s not about gulls at all.